5 must-follow tips will let you shop safely online, UAB expert says

Online shoppers can protect their identities and financial account numbers by following five safety tips this holiday season, says Gary Warner, international cyber-crime consultant and director of research in computer forensics at the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.

Americans purchased nearly $36 billion online during the 2009 holidays, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and criminals again are ready to target millions of Americans expected to shop via the Internet this year.

"The greatest online security threat has nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with the person behind the keyboard," says Warner.

Warner posts the latest online safety advice on his blog Cybercrime and Doing Time, collaborates with the FBI, FDIC and other federal and international agencies to track and prosecute cyber-criminals through the UAB Spam Data Mine and other labs he directs at UAB.

Warner recommends five simple safety measures:

  • Set your operating system to automatic update

"You want to have Windows update turned on so that you are automatically downloading security and other software patches. If Microsoft has something new to protect your computer, you want it."

  • Use shopping sites, not just search results

"Don't assume that every search result is a good place to go shopping. The criminals know what's popular, and they'll set up bogus sites riddled with viruses. Use shopping aggregator sites like Shopping.com, or stay with name-brand websites that you trust."

  • Don't click through e-mail offers

"Spam messages, even if they look legitimate, can be dangerous, linking to malware or scam sites. Instead, go to your Web browser and type in the address of the site you want to visit; you'll be able to find all their advertised sale items when you go there."

  • Register for one-time-use credit card numbers

"Many of the major credit-card providers will give you a 16-digit number that can only be used as a one-time transaction; PayPal will do the same sort of thing."

  • Click on your common sense

"The bottom line is that you have to be smart when shopping online. If it seems too good to be true, it's not true. There is no such thing as a $100 Rolex."